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False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Let’s start with a deceptively complex question that looks simple. What exactly is monotheism? It lies at the core of all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith). All four of these insist that God is One, although with slightly different emphasis. No religion outside that lineage holds this belief, although one finds a unity underlying the surface diversity in many approaches to spirituality that are otherwise polytheistic, from the Greek philosophers to Hinduism to some versions of Neopaganism.

To complicate matters more, many people who are theoretical monotheists are polytheists in practice. This includes Christians who pray to Mary or to the Saints, Muslims who also sometimes pray to Mary, and those who invoke different aspects or Names of God for different purposes. Monotheism, therefore, isn’t the worship of only one deity. That generally doesn’t happen; our minds are too limited to do that, and can’t wrap themselves around something as cosmic as Everything. Instead, monotheism is the theoretical belief that there is only one God, and this is made compatible with polytheistic practice by demoting deities in the plural to saints, angels, prophets, or a prophet’s mother.

Monotheism has one advantage over polytheism, and that is its inherent recognition of the unity of the cosmos. Monotheists avoid the fragmentation that can afflict polytheists (as discussed last week), but conflict arises of a different kind, and it emerges precisely from that limitation of the human mind that cannot grasp the All either by reason or by imagining. When one recognizes the unity of All, and at the same time can only imagine or grasp mentally a fragment or aspect of the All, it is easy to make the mistake of supposing that fragment or aspect to be the whole. The reality of God is too vast to be apprehended or conceived, and so something that the mind can apprehend and conceive is promoted to the role of Sole God.

Just as the mind cannot grasp the ultimate Reality, so (and perhaps even more so) human language cannot describe it or present rules or rituals or doctrines appropriate to it. This is a limitation that applies to scripture of any kind for that reason. And yet, because of the confusion that arises between what the mind can grasp and what is ultimately Real, it is very easy and common for monotheists to imbue their imaginings and limited visions and limited scriptures with an authority far beyond what they could ever merit. This gives rise to the biggest downside of monotheism: false certainty and dogma. It afflicts at least some of the believers in all four monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic lineage.

The ultimate expression of this false certainty is condemnation of those who believe differently, at times (especially when religion has been allied with the state) going so far as criminal persecution for heresy or religious war. Unlike the conflicts between polytheists discussed last week, this is not conflict caused by different Gods, but rather about different conceptions of what is supposed to be only one and the same God.

Historically, Christians have condemned Jews and Muslims for not recognizing the divinity of Christ, while Muslims have condemned Christians for seeing Christ as more than a prophet, and Jews for failing to see either Christ or Muhammad as even that much. Christians have condemned one another over points of doctrine that could matter only to those who take such things literally (which is a mistake in itself), and Muslims have condemned one another over who was the true successor of the Prophet and over teachings that went along with that. That’s all in addition to the ferocious conflict between monotheisms and polytheistic religion, from the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah described in the Bible, to the banning and condemnation of pagan religion by the Christian Roman Empire, to the bloody struggles between Islam and Hinduism in India.

The problem here is not so much disagreement (to disagree and argue is human, after all), but rather the idea that God supports one and only one doctrine, and that those who believe differently are not merely disagreeing with one another but each sees the other as going against the divine will. This is possible to believe only if one takes a limited idea — which is the only kind that the human mind can hold — and inflates that idea into identity with the All. That is the root of dogma and the origin of false certainty.

Is there anything monotheists can do to avoid this trap? Certainly, and many of them do. One can remind oneself often that God is beyond human knowledge and that we must all be humble before the Mystery. If you can wrap your mind around it and understand it, then it is not God. At best, it’s a particular viewpoint or perspective on God, the best that you can do with a finite brain. Someone else may come up with a different vision that is equally valid, even where it appears to disagree with yours.

Some monotheists have shown themselves capable of that degree of enlightenment and humility. Alas, many have shown to the contrary as well, and that is why separation of church and state is so important to the maintenance of peace and liberty. The error of false certainty and dogma is potentially deadly, and the only way to prevent that potential from becoming actual is to deny it any temporal power.


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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choice is our birthright. It’s one we fear to claim.

Exactly where this fear comes from is a bit of a riddle. Perhaps it’s a fruit of childhood dependence, on the habit of deferring to parents to make decisions. As we mature, we take on the task of choosing in more and more things, but by the time that happens we have become so accustomed to letting others make our choices that we still look for reassurance from parents or parent-substitutes, someone or something to tell us that we have made the right decision. Maybe that’s it or maybe it’s something more cosmic for which the process of biological and cultural maturation is a microcosmic metaphor.

Regardless of where it comes from, though, it certainly happens. We believe things not because the evidence tells us they are so, but because some authority — a doctor, a professor of science, the president, a minister, a movement leader — says they are so.

This is more true in the area of religion and spirituality than any other area of life. (It’s equally a mistake, equally a sad abandonment of our birthright, in any area.) Spiritual experience is murky, difficult to understand, and impossible to put into words in any straightforward fashion. It’s also possibly the most compelling experience possible to a human mind. That combination makes it a great opportunity for the power-hungry to deceive the innocent.

Every body of religious doctrine consists of two parts. One part is an affirmation of spiritual experience and an attempt to put it into an intellectual framework that can be accepted and believed. A religious says to a person who has stood before the face of the cosmos, “No, you aren’t crazy. It really happened. And it means this.” The ability to provide this service is the reason why religions have believers. It’s the reason why the remainder of the body of religious doctrine is able to deceive and enslave.

The other part is an assertion of power. It’s an attempt to make the religious believer surrender his birthright and accept the religious organization, its teachings, and its scripture as the decision-maker. To do this, the religious organization uses doctrinal tricks such as a claim that its sacred writings are divinely inspired and infallible, that its own organization and hierarchy are sacred and established by divine authority, and that unbelievers will be punished by God or the Gods or the cosmic principles in some way, while believers in good standing will be rewarded. These being imaginary punishments and rewards, they can be made extravagant far beyond the materially possible: cruel torment going on forever and ever, or unending perfect bliss. At the same time, though, when given the power to do so religious organizations have not proven shy about using the resources of the state to dispense temporal punishments and rewards which, while lesser in scope, are more immediately effective.

Religion, like government, always attracts those who are interested in exerting power over others. In the past, and in some places to this day, religion and government have been partners. At other times they have been rivals. But the secular authority and the high priesthood have always recognized one another as kin, whether they strove together or against one another, and rightly so.

On a collective level the only way to reduce the danger posed by religion is to separate it from the state, so that no religion can be favored by the state and no religion can make use of the state’s authority. That goes a long way towards de-fanging the serpent. It leaves religion in possession of its more fundamental power, though, which is at root a power to persuade and deceive. If there’s a collective solution to that, it lies in making sure the playing field is crowded: that each religion must seek adherents in competition with many others, so that no one is isolated with only one doctrinal message available.

On an individual level, the answer lies in remembering who has the real final authority: we do. Each of us does. And remember as well, that we contend not with the sacred ones, but with ordinary human beings who want to convince us that they have the answers, and that we should follow them.

Remember that in questioning a scripture, we are not asserting our own judgment over that of God, but asserting it over the claims of mere mortals about what they say is God’s word. (Or, as I put it more sarcastically once in a discussion with a Bible absolutist, “No, I don’t think I’m smarter than God. I just think I’m smarter than you.”) It is in the end our own judgment, and that is our duty as well as our right.

Do I trust a council of bishops called by an emperor for political purposes to be able to tell divine inspiration when they see it? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion to accept their claim that certain early Christian writings out of all the hundreds that were generated between the crucifixion and the Council of Nicaea are divinely inspired.

Do I believe that a prophet who was also a political leader, motivated to unite a collection of fractious, backward tribes and bring them into civilization, always exercised pure judgment in what he presented to them as the word of God? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion in regard to the Quran any more than the Bible.

But those are only two instances of a general rule. In the end, the deferral of judgment to outside authority is a cop-out and the claim of it is a lie. In the end, each of us has the right to make that judgment for ourselves. In the end, the good that is found in each body of doctrine must be separated from the bad; the valid metaphors and models for religious experience and the profound expressions of myth must be separated from the assertions of power and authority.

In the end, the only true religion is the one you craft for yourself, helped by many, but dictated by none.

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Spirituality Without Labels


I used to call myself Pagan or Neopagan. I no longer do. I haven’t rejected any significant spiritual ideas from the days when I did call myself a Pagan, and I certainly haven’t converted to another religion. What I find myself doing is rejecting the label. In fact, I find myself rejecting all labels.

The problem with labels when it comes to spirituality is that labels — “Pagan,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Mormon,” whatever — come with definitions, and to define is to set limits. And that means that when you give your spirituality a label, you set limits on it. The label doesn’t just mean “I am this,” it also means “I am not that.” To label yourself is to tell your mind that it may consider ideas only in a certain group and must preemptively reject ideas that are beyond that group. Not only is this inappropriately self-limiting, but in today’s world with instant communication flying around the compass of it, it becomes harder and harder to to. To label oneself is to place oneself under siege, so that one is always resisting the attack of heretical notions, not because one disagrees with them in any reasoned way, but simply because to accept them would call one’s self-definition into question. And yet to wall oneself off so that one is not confronted with ideas outside the boundaries of a religious label is increasingly impossible.

Because of events in the last few decades, I’ve seen Christians in America reacting defensively to the increasing visibility of Muslim ideas and quotations from the Quran. I’m not just talking about the extreme fringe that wants to deport all Muslims and go to war with every Muslim country and is behind the ridiculous legislation to ban Sharia from U.S. courts (from which it is already banned by the First Amendment, as is all religious-based legal argument), but also the more moderate disquiet seen among Christians who aren’t certifiable nut-jobs. There’s a sense among them that Christianity is under siege. Of course it remains overwhelmingly in the majority among Americans while Islam still represents a tiny (if growing) minority, and Christianity has always been banned from holding an official, privileged position by that same First Amendment that bans Sharia from the courts, so on that front there’s nothing to be lost. But in a very real sense, those Christians who see their faith as being under siege are right. It isn’t under siege at large, but it is under siege within their own minds.

A quote from the Quran may seem wise and appealing. A Christian may be tempted to look into it further, to read the Muslim holy text in the whole, to attend services at a mosque and see how Muslims worship. (The discovery that there are neither orgies nor human sacrifices involved may be further disquieting.) If these ideas are appealing, does that mean that Muslims are right and Muhammad was a Prophet of God? But if I decide that, I would have to stop praying to Jesus, and I like praying to Jesus; he comforts me and gives me hope. I can’t be a Christian and a Muslim both at the same time, can I?

Well, no — within the context of those two religions’ self-definition, you can’t; as everyone should know, while they agree on many points of doctrine, Islam and Christianity each reject certain key points of the other’s belief system. Islam rejects the divinity of Christ, and Christianity rejects the prophet-hood of Muhammad. What one can do, however, is to reject both of those labels, and one is then free to approve and agree with any ideas from both which seem useful, and from all other religious traditions as well. One can be neither a Christian nor a Muslim, yet find much in the teachings of Jesus or of Muhammad that is wise and good.

The same process is going on within all religions at this time and is a product of the cultural globalization that results form the Internet and from economic globalization. It becomes more and more difficult to wall oneself off from ideas outside one’s spiritual self-definition, and because of this, more and more difficult to preserve the purity of a doctrinal label. This is no doubt disquieting to those who find comfort in self-labeling and self-definition, and especially to those who have been taught that if they don’t believe certain things God is going to punish them with eternal damnation and torture, but for me — and I believe for many others and ultimately for the world — it is liberating.

The idea behind separation or church and state, or one idea behind it, and also behind freedom of speech and a free press, is to have a “marketplace of ideas.” Now, in a marketplace of goods, one does not expect or want to see goods available only in packaged bundles, but one prefers also to be able to buy things individually. Why should it be any different with ideas? Does one have to buy into the whole corpus of Christian doctrine with its bloodthirsty God and crude divine/human-sacrifice model of redemption and threats of incomprehensibly vicious punishment for innocent differences of opinion, in order to recognize the wisdom in Jesus’ teaching that the foundation of morality is to love one another, or his wonderful metaphors for enlightenment found in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven? No, one does not.

We should all bear in mind the Sufi parable of the blind men and the elephant. This is the story of a number of blind men (six in most versions) who were curious about the elephant and went to discover what they could about the beast. One stumbled against the elephant’s side and proclaimed that the elephant was like a wall. Another laid hands on its trunk and claimed that it was like a snake. The others, encountering the animal’s ear, tusk, leg, and tail, proclaimed the elephant to be like a fan, spear, tree, and rope respectively. The blind men began arguing heatedly with each other and were soon pounding one another with their canes, each of them partly right, but all of them wrong.

The metaphor is obvious: when it comes to divine reality, we are all at least somewhat blind and there is no literally true statement about that reality that can be made using human language. (Even such a basic question as polytheism versus monotheism represents an argument among blind men about the elephant. Is the universe one thing or many? Clearly, it’s both.) One important step in removing our blinders is to reject the labels that can often amount to blindfolds.

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Religion, Spirituality and Politics

Religion and spirituality, though related, aren’t the same thing. We have a deep distrust in the West of mixing religion and politics, a distrust that has only been reinforced and confirmed of late by the example of Islamic fanatics exerting dangerous influence over governments in the Middle East. (Those who think this is a problem with Islam, as opposed to one with religion in general, display their need to learn more about the history of religions, especially their own.)

Religion is in a peculiar place. Initially it emerges as an expression of spirituality, a way of communally expressing faith and love of the cosmos, a way to reunifying the divided on a social level. But a religious organization also develops business and political interests, and these compete with its spiritual imperative, sometimes eclipsing it altogether. The more a religion gains worldly power, the less spiritual it becomes. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal,” said Jesus, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” And yet within a few centuries after his death, the faith supposedly founded on his teachings had become the state faith of the Roman Empire, rich and powerful, with treasures aplenty on Earth. Within a century after that, Christian authorities were putting “heretics” to death and forcibly converting pagans to Christianity (more Christians by far were murdered for their faith by the Christian Roman Empire than by its pagan predecessor).

It’s taken the modern separation of church and state in the West to restore Christianity to a semblance of the diversity and creativity that it had prior to the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Imperial Church. Denied political power, the Christian denominations have also been denied the ability to suppress heresy, and good things have resulted.

Islam, for its part, suffered a mixture with politics almost from the beginning, but managed to head off the danger for the most part until modern times. The Prophet Muhammad was a political leader and a war leader as well as a spiritual leader. After his death, leadership of the community of believers, which had become coextensive with most of the Arab people, passed by election according to Arab tradition, as if Muhammad had been a king — which in effect he was. A lineage of Caliphs — successors to Muhammad’s political authority — followed. While it was never asserted that the Caliphs had inherited Muhammad’s full religious authority as well as his political authority (none of them was ever considered a Prophet), the early Caliphs nonetheless tended to assert religious authority in all ways that they could argue were consistent with the Quran. This brought them into conflict with the ulema — the community of Islamic scholars and religious lawyers — which the latter eventually won, confining the Caliphs thereafter to a strictly secular leadership role. This created a sort of “separation of mosque and state” which stood Islam well for a long while, but this tradition appears to have been forgotten by a lot of Muslims today.

As is the case with Christianity, Islam today appears to express its potential best in the West, where separation of religion and state is the norm and often the law.

Even gentle Buddhism has on at least one occasion succumbed to the lure of political power, when the great King Ashoka converted to it and made it the official religion of much of India. This situation didn’t last long beyond Ashoka’s death, however, and the potential corruption of Buddhism never went as far as it did with some other faiths.

More examples could be given, but these suffice to illustrate the rule: the more political power a religious organization seeks and obtains, the less spiritual it becomes, and the more prone to violence. Religious organizations seek political authority, as does everyone, for a mix of selfish and noble reasons; it’s argued that temporal power helps religious teachers to bring people into alignment with the divine — but the more political power the religion amasses, the less in tune with the divine it becomes. No one can be brought to communion with the holy — the god sense cannot be awakened — by force. (That includes the force asserted by threat of Hell.) There is no bond that can unite the divided but love.

It would seem from a quick assessment of all this that the spiritual and the political are inherently incompatible. And yet, at the same time, there are examples of spiritual leaders who have brought about great changes in the world and had a huge impact on politics for the better. Muhammad himself is one; in more modern times, so are Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it really isn’t the case that spirituality and politics can’t mix (though the spiritual political activist must always be aware of the danger of political causes becoming more important than spirituality itself, the tail wagging the dog, and prepared to retire to solitude from time to time to prevent that happening).

But while Muhammad and Gandhi and King mixed spirituality and politics, none of them asserted political authority based on religion. That is to say, King’s influence did not derive from his position as the pastor of a church, from the temporal power that he wielded through the church’s organization, and neither Muhammad nor Gandhi possessed such temporal religious power, Muhammad initially, Gandhi ever. They made a change in the world not through the force of arms and wealth controlled by a religious organization, but through the force of their personalities, the rightness of their causes, the subtle strength of their magic, and the power of God.

In alchemy, there is an image of the sacred marriage that involves the merging of opposites to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. The impact of spirituality on politics is one manifestation of this. If we were to insist that politics remain spirituality-free, we would in that stroke eliminate all of the good spirituality could do in the world and much of the point of its existence. (In fact, there are ways that religious organizations use to try to keep genuine spirituality powerless, such as the seclusion of Christian mystics in monasteries or the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world.)

What we require is not separation of God and state, but separation of church and state. When organizations devoted ostensibly to spiritual purposes achieve temporal power, the assertion of that power is not itself spiritual but merely another political force, another interest group — by this measure, we can usually tell those religious organizations that have lost their way.


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